Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Why Do We Need A Masked Manhunter? Comic Book Rehab Relaunch Issue #1

People still ask, "If you had any superpower, which one would it be?" Meanwhile, the most successful superhero is a guy who has no powers. Actually, he does have a power, the most powerfull of all.

Batman's been around for over 70 years - he's been played in live-action by seven different actors, he's starred in a bunch of cartoons, had his face plastered all over merchandise, and supports a whole line of comics - a "Batman Family" of books - within DC's line, for over the last 20 years.

Some credit this success to the fact that he's a very flexible character - open to differnet interpretations, yet never inconsistant; no matter how light or dark the portrayal, he remains Batman. How is this possible? I suspect it has a lot to do with the fact that his origin came sometime after he was introduced, and when you're working backwards like that, it means you have a concept first, and when that happens,  it's possible to go any which way you please, because the backstory came later. That's how you wind up with the giant props, the cheery sidekicks, magic creatures, crazy costumes, goofy adversaries - the whole bit. Strip away all these elements and you can still tell Batman stories. Add in more elements and you can still tell Batman stories. He's still The Dark Knight. And The Caped Crusader. And The Masked Manhunter. And The World's Greatest Detective.

There are disagreements as to which interpretation is considered proper Batman. Some think it's the recent movies directed by Christopher Nolan. Others believe it's the popular cartoons from the last two decades, which feature a fully-realized Batman that outclasses the one that appeared in comics simultaneously. Some say it's the Batman of the 1st Tim Burton film. Some people think it's the Saturday morning Batman that hanged out with Scooby Doo and the Superfriends.

 And there are many that think Adam West is still the best Batman - event though that show has been written off as a spoof.  Use of the word "spoof" seems recent to me - just a way to give it a place on the shelf. Personally, any time I've picked up a book reprinting Batman comics from the 40's-60's, I've found the writing to be no different in execution than the show, save for a few knowing winks and nods to the audience. The same goes for the Superfriends - it may have been a spinoff of Scooby Doo, but the Justice League comics were not too different from the show, save for it being overrun with 2nd and 3rd string characters.

Why is it that one interpretation never stomps out the others? I recall Batman's light blue and grey costume lasted well into the mid-90's, and still appears in merchandise, and in a recent cartoon, 'Batman: The Brave and The Bold" which offers a light and fun Batman. Maybe the light and fun Batman seems more human than the Dark Knight. Maybe a lighter touch can endure the ridiculous merchandising demands and ebb and flow of audience tastes better than Mr. Serious. Is the Dark Knight fun for a dreary Sunday afternoon?

Regeneration is quite an amazing superpower - do you think he was bitten by a radioactive bat? That's a story that'll never be told.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Supergods by Grant Morrison - Book Review

Grant Morrison is an interesting case. He was part of the British Invasion of comic book writers in the 1980's (with Frank Miller as their token Yankee), and his work at the time didn't quite grab attention like Alan Moore or Neil Gaiman, but he's the last man standing. Alan Moore became the modern day Howard Hughes, Gaiman became a bestselling author and screenwriter, recently getting positive marks for writing an episode of Doctor Who. This year Morrison has managed to complete his opus, Supergods, which he often hinted at in interviews over the past few years as being a survey of Superheroes and how people read them, as well as cobbling together a lot of the rhetoric about their popularity which often appeared in bits and bobs in many of his interviews.

Morrison's work can be described in two categories - stories that use structure: there's a beginning, a middle, and an end, the audience is hip to what's going on, the characters are in fine form; then there are stories that consist of moments: cause-and effect built around high-concept metaphysics. These are stories that approach the character as a concept, with reflections that play off representative samples of how they were portrayed over decades, as well as creating suspense about the nature of the world/universe/hyper reality that serves as their backdrop/soundtrack, decompressed into a 30/40-issue arc. This approach is the more ambitious, often  sabotaged by modern scriptwriting. Stories like Seven Soldiers, Batman R.I.PFinal Crisis, and Batman: The Return of Bruce Wayne feel rushed and incoherent, making more sense in talk back interviews. Final Crisis felt like a typical Zombie/Vampire movie with a tired superhero/supervillain twist and not very interesting, but it was only upon reading Supergods that there was a more intriguing undertow that should have been front-and-center. It was as if Grant had been stretched thin and had to move on to his next "big event thing", his next wide screen comic book epic.

Two things Morrison neglected to mention in his book had me curious. In 2000, having completed a successful run redefining the long-running, but often mediocre mainstay, Justice League of America, as well as wrapping his creator owned title, The Invisibles, Grant claimed he was through working with DC, believing that concepts he created for The Invisibles had been ripped-off by the Matrix franchise. He then began a four-year tenure with Marvel, headlined by an interesting run on the book New X-Men that ran out of gas very quickly. Then he returned to DC. I guess he got over it - he makes no mention of the fit in particular, except perhaps with a wink when he recalls seeing the Matrix and describing his work on The Invisibles.

The other thing was a series of ads for Calvin Klein jeans that appeared on the back covers of Marvel comics a few years back. After giving Rob Liefeld a poke in the ribs for starring in a Levis jeans commercial in the 90's, I suppose Morrison couldn't find a way to make his celebrity (and that of his cronies, contemporaries, and upstart proteges) distinguishable from Rob's (and the founders of Image comics) without his reasoning falling apart.

He describes his work a lot here. For this book is a memoir disguised as a history lesson - yet that's what it does, it offers the history of Superheroes as the soundtrack to Grant Morrison's life and his universe. For within these pages, these so-called "Supergods" are his muse - his theories about life, the universe, and everything have some connection to the characters that only exist on printed paper, on TV screens, as merchandise, and the cinema. He runs the risk of making mountains out of molehills and coming off glib, but once you realize that he's offering insight into how he works, then the book becomes more interesting for it. We rarely get a chance to pick inside the brain of a popular author, see what makes him tick, and look forward to his next project with greater insight into the origins of his imagination.

In lesser hands, this book would've been an ego trip - many will see it that way. Morrison is still playing his cards close, but he's letting us take a quick peak at his hand. For now, anyway. It's worth a look.

Take Care.